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Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo: Thoughts Post Rio

Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace. Photo: Flickr CC

KUMI Naidoo of South Africa has emerged as the Intl. Executive Director of Greenpeace after a lifetime of activism.  He was recently seen at the much publicized Rio+20 conference.  We ask him about the effectiveness of these conferences and if the private sector is really taking any tangible steps towards environmental protection and sustainability.

You said that Rio was a failure much like Copenhagen was a disappointment.  Have you lost hope in global governance for environmental issues?  Have you found any of these meetings to be useful/fruitful?

Our governments have been taken hostage by short term corporate interests and that is indeed a depressing reality.

But meetings such as Rio and Copenhagen also always spark change and ripples that go beyond any official political outcomes. Copenhagen helped to make the Danish-owned energy company, DONG, abandon coal, for example, and Rio put a global spotlight on the urgent need to protect the Amazon. Standing together with the Catholic Church and the landless movement in support of our Zero Deforestation citizen law initiative in Rio was an inspiring moment for me and I am convinced we will, in the wake of Rio, collect the 1,4 million signatures we need to force the Brazilian parliament to vote on a law that could end deforestation in Brazil by 2015.

Corporations are constantly talking abut sustainability and have appointed Chief Sustainability Officers – but is any of this resulting in real change? Is there a company that you can point to and say – this is working, they’re actually trying to create change?

There are companies who are showing signs of walking the talk. For example, Google is investing prolifically in renewable energy, Nike and H&M are eliminating toxic chemicals from their supply chains, supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is sourcing sustainable seafood and backing marine reserves, and a growing number of corporations including Unilever and Nestle are refusing to buy from APP as long as it continues to clear rainforests and destroy peatlands in Indonesia. There is a lot of positive change happening out there, the tragedy is that it is not fundemantal and fast enough. Unless we get the regulations that change the status quo and make unsustainable practices expensive or illegal, we will always be playing catch up and be witness to changes that are far too incremental rather than radical.

You’ve come into this executive post having been a strong activist.  How do you balance your executive post now which requires you to engage with heads of state/ business leaders with your grassroots activists.

We are all humans and I actually find that on a one to one level there is not that much difference between talking to a grassroots activist and a CEO. My friend and fellow activist Van Jones has said that I can give a speech to poor kids and get them excited, and then give the same speech at the World Economic Forum to the richest people in the world, and get a standing ovation. I think he is exaggerating, but I do find that speaking from the heart and the soul, it is possible to engage all types in the battle for our survival.

What direction do you want to take Greenpeace towards – do you want to focus on specific issues? There has been criticism, as you know, that Greenpeace lost its core and deviated from its intent.

Greenpeace above all is about giving a voice to the earth and future generations and that passion is something I see grow every day, and every time I meet our volunteers. There is no question that climate change is the battle of our time and that we need to change our energy system and end deforestation if we want to beat it.

Greenpeace can´t do this alone and so I do want Greenpeace to work more and more with allies in civil society.

The fight against climate change and the fight against poverty are two sides of the same coin, for example.

Climate change destroys the livelihoods of millions of people. It makes the poor even poorer. The solutions to climate change like decentralized renewable energy systems also go part of the way to lifting people out of poverty.

There’s a strong connect between poverty and environmental issues – how do you try to get the global governance community to understand that there are economic implications for environmental issues and that some of the world’s poor (who pollute the least) are being hit hard by this?

The tragedy is that most people in the global governance community – or indeed in the global elite – understand this full well. If you talk to people at Davos, they *know* that they poorest are hit first and hardest by climate change, for example. But they feel stuck in structures and incentives and also at times do not have the courage to break out of established patterns.

Greenpeace does not need to preach, but use the widespread sense of something going wrong to speed up the transition to the fair and green economy we need. We need to create inspiring visions of the world we’d like to live in, and this is happening. We are campaigning for an Energy Revolution with business partners, for example. It´s our blueprint, backed up by the right science, of a renewable energy future.

Kumi Naidoo protesting oil rigs off the coast of Greenland (Photo by Greenpeace)

You said that you’d like to focus on the financial industry.  “Our aim is to get all banks to say we won’t make loans to oil, coal, gas and deforestation-related activity. We want to shut off the flow of capital. The time is right because the banks are at their most vulnerable in terms of public legitimacy.” Do you see this as even feasible?  Why would they agree?

Because risk is a language that capital understands.

We’ve exposed the financial risks for the tar sands (see here and here) and Lloyds of London – who set the gold standard for risk assessment –  have also rung the alarm bell for Arctic oil. Lloyds and the respected think tank Chatham House believe that an oil spill in the Arctic would constitute  “a unique and hard to manage risk”. Our own report Out in the cold shows that Shell investors should be worried about Shell´s Arctic plans. Our report shows that even if investors don’t care about the environment, they should be very concerned about the risks Shell is running with their money, and their future prosperity. It´s this expertise that will get us heard.

A big part of the problem with sustainability/ environmental preservation is growth – growth is seen favourably (the story of Asia’s growth has been celebrated widely) but it’s not good for the environment.  So, how do we redefine growth – should scalability not be so highly touted?  Should more local solutions be the answer?

First, growth as a goal in an of itself must be abandoned. The economy needs to be a tool to deliver societal needs and aspirations, not stand as the be all and end all of our existence.

Some sectors – such as the renewables industry – will need to grow, some people and communities will certainly need more access to resources, land and money, but overall GDP growth in the developed world in particular must not be a goal. Solutions exists and will vary from small to large, from local to global. Our energy revolution, for example, requires both massive local and decentralized solutions as well as some large-scale global ones. What matters is that we act, and that we do so fast.

This piece originally appeared on on 12 July 2012.

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About The Author(s)

Esha Chhabra


I write for a number of publications on social impact, looking at innovations, startups, and social entrepreneurs. I've had the opportunity to contribute to a number of platforms such as the San Francisco Chronicle, NYTimes India Ink,,, and the Guardian.

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